I was aboard when Corkett and Instructor Vern Edler, a member of a vintage California sailing family, took a class of Ocean Sailing II students out in the Cal-40 for a session with the big spinnaker and some additional windward practice.
The class consisted of a radiologist named Bill Kimball and his blonde, short-shorted wife Dotty (who own a 28-footer but don't know how to set its spinnaker), an electronics engineer named Gordon Murphy and his teacher-wife (along for the ride, not a lesson) and Dr. Sibley, a white-haired physician. All of the students had a casual familiarity with the names of various pieces of spinnaker gear. They knew that the spinnaker is a sail used only for running before or across the wind. They knew that the spinnaker pole is the long spar that holds the balloonlike sail away from the boat, that the piece of line running from the cockpit forward to the outboard spinnaker-pole tip is called an "afterguy," that the line attached to the opposite corner of the spinnaker (the clew) is a "sheet," that the "fore-guy" keeps the spinnaker pole from cocking up, the "topping lift" keeps it from drooping down. But they didn't know what to do about it all.
Their lesson began on deck at the berth with a general discussion of spinnakers and how to pack them properly preparatory to hoisting. Then Corkett started the engine and in the firm monotone of a practiced teacher explained the difficulty of backing an auxiliary under power. "The best way of getting under way is to walk the boat out of slip," he said. "Walk it out real slowly about halfway." The crew walked along the dock tugging at the sloop until it stuck halfway out into the channel. "Engage the clutch and back out now," intoned Corkett as the crew, fresh out of dock, scrambled aboard. "You'll find the wind will swing your bow around." Gordon Murphy, who was at the helm, engaged the clutch and, sure enough, as the boat cleared the slip the wind caught her bow and swung it around so she was headed in the right direction.
The narrow channel through which we powered was jammed with powerboats, dinghies, catamarans, swimmers and a ferry, all crying for elbowroom. "Stay well to leeward of them," ordered Corkett, pointing at an extra-dense thicket of sails. "They're racing. You can usually tell racing boats because they all look alike," he told Murphy, who was sweating at his job.
Outside the harbor the jam was only slightly less severe, and every twitch or worried look from Murphy was excuse for Edler or Corkett to explain something new. Finally, when we were clear of all other craft, they got the mainsail hoisted, and Vern asked the Kim-balls and Dr. Sibley to step over to the foredeck. "I would like you each to tie a bowline in the genoa sheet, he asked politely. The doctor tied a fair bowline, Dotty Kimball tied another and her husband tied something that was less bowline than cat's cradle. "Whee!" piped Dotty, while her husband undid his tangle and redid it right. The Kim-balls were an exception to the Ardell rule that husbands and wives must be segregated during lessons.
On the long beat to weather over an ocean lightly brushed by wind, everyone took a turn at the tiller. Dotty steered casually with a brown, pedicured foot. After five progressively improved tacks Corkett said it was time to get on with the spinnaker drill.
Setting a spinnaker can be a hairy proposition at best. At worst it is an escalating disaster. Ideally, the sail is hoisted in stops (i.e., neatly bundled together like a string of sausages), with one corner attached to the pole, another to a line (the sheet) which, when yanked, opens the sail to the wind. As disjointed as beginners on a tandem bike, the pupils helped raise the pole, the spinnaker snaked aloft, the sheet was tugged and—surprise!—the sail burst out round and light as a bubble. Then began a question-and-answer period. "Gordon, do you think the spinnaker is setting properly?" asked Corkett. Murphy said he thought it was. Bill Kimball said he thought the pole ought to be eased forward. Then he changed his mind and said he thought it looked all right. Dotty prudently fussed with a line, safely—or so she thought—out of Corkett's sight. But Corkett is a teacher who believes in total class participation. "Dotty," he said, "if we had to head up 20� what would we do with the spinnaker pole?" Dotty blushed and allowed as how she didn't know. Corkett explained gently that the pole would go forward to keep the wind blowing squarely into the spinnaker. Dotty nodded.
If setting a spinnaker is difficult, jibing one is even more so. This is the process of bringing the big sail from one side of the boat to the other to match a change in the direction of the wind. If there is too little wind during the maneuver the sail collapses and snags on heretofore invisible projections as the spinnaker sways from port to starboard. If there is too much wind the crew finds itself wrestling a heavy-muscled wraith. This day the wind was light. Nevertheless Corkett and Edler guided the class through a passable, but not sharp, jibe. They jibed again, and then again and again, first end-for-end jibes as they do on small boats, then dip jibes as they make them on 12-meters and ocean racers. After five or more jibes, the four pupils instinctively began to grab for the right line and call it by the right name. "Good," said Captain Bligh Corkett at last, and the crew looked as happy as kids who have learned to spell C-A-T. They chattered merrily together as they dumped the spinnaker and reset the genoa for another pull to windward, then Corkett dropped a bomb. "Next leg," he said, "you will put the spinnaker up all by yourselves. Vern and I won't say a word unless you do something terrible." At that the teacher became the youth he really is. "I talk too much," he grinned. "I think I'll just jump overboard."
"Where," said Dotty Kimball, "are the life preservers?"
The big boat reached the end of her beat, came about for the run back to Newport, and the class resumed its practice, shakily at first, then with surging confidence. "Let's go there," commanded Dotty, who was in charge of the first spinnaker setting. "Who's on the foreguy?"